The Arts and the Definition of the Human: Toward a Philosophical Anthropology

By Joseph Margolis | Go to book overview

1
Perceiving Paintings as Paintings

IN SPEAKING INFORMALLY of “the visual arts” we may be drawn to objects of perfectly valid but unlikely kinds: for instance, those that belong to landscaping, city planning, decor, couture, decoration, and other forms of design. But academic aesthetics still singles out painting and sculpture without prejudice to whatever else may be included, except that painting and sculpture (categories already too protean for much useful generalization) are assumed to collect the principal specimens of what we have in mind when we theorize about the visual arts; where, that is, the addition of architecture or decor is likely to intrude considerations very far removed from what is usually featured in the best-known philosophical disputes, for instance, regarding pictorial representation. Not always of course, as when we resist treating the Van Eyck triptych, The Adoration of the Lamb, as a painting separable from its place near the altar at St. Baaf's. We often think of easel painting as providing a sense of acceptable examples, though not to disallow Michelangelo's Sistine ceiling, Frank Stella's shaped panels, Anselm Kiefer's mixed-media hangings, Chartres' windows, Schwitters's collages, or Mapplethorpe's photographs.

There is no entirely reliable principle of selection here, as if to say we could isolate the decisive philosophical questions about the visual arts if only we kept to the essential specimens. It's more the other way around: interesting questions arise from a motley at hand, and as our sense of what might be worth pursuing comes into focus, the collection of instructive specimens follows suit. Pertinent generalization and pertinent exemplification select one another—”equilibratively”—in every kind of inquiry1

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